One town, one heart

Joplin Unity Walk offers healing, hope

JOPLIN – There is a scar. A long, dark scar, somewhat healed over, but still red with pain, still smooth with newness. The tornado left that scar, miles long and nearly a mile in width at some points.

As a scar heals, the hand is drawn to it, to run along it gently, to remember how it happened, to try to take away the pain and help it heal.

That is what the community of Joplin came together to do Tuesday, the first anniversary of the EF5 tornado that hit with little warning May 22, 2011. Thousands of residents, volunteers, community leaders and supporters gathered to walk the scar, to see the damage and the progress. They walked to remember those lost, to see firsthand the rebuilding, to gain some closure after a tough year.

I walked because I am a former resident. I lived in Joplin for 5 years; it’s the only place I have lived away from Mid-Missouri for more than a few months.

‘15th Street Walmart survivor’

Her shirt was homemade, a puff-paint badge of honor she donned to return to the 15th Street Walmart, the start of the city’s Unity Walk. The store was destroyed in the storm, but rebuilt and reopened within months.

As I looked around, I realized nearly all of the walkers had some sort of declaration on their shirt, of survival, of hope, of rebuilding, of remembrance.

They carried signs, walked in honor of one of the 161 people who died that day and in the days to come, taken by the intense winds and swirling debris.

I began near the front of the huge throng. Eventually, it thinned out, and as we turned the first corner, we were shocked to see the line of people had stretched nearly four blocks in front of us. Behind us, people were still leaving the starting area.

People of all kinds came out to support the city and tornado recovery. There were young and old, babies and dogs, those who had come for the entire walk or those who joined in on the way.

As we made our way up 20th Street, one of the city’s main throroughfares and one of the streets hardest hit, we began to see people lining the sidewalk. They were waiting to hand us water, to spray us with sunscreen, to offer us support.

‘Count me in’

The T-shirt in front of me was simple and to the point. “Count me in.” It embodied the spirit of those who showed up in the hours and days afterward. It also embodied the spirit of the Unity Walk. We were reminded at the beginning, this was not a race. And indeed, it was a leisurely stroll through the middle of Joplin, with friendly banter about what was for dinner tonight, how last night’s graduation parties went and the occasional sighting of someone familiar.

‘Nothing stops us’

The path of the walk reversed the path of the tornado, heading west for St. John’s Medical Center and Cunningham Park, what have become the symbols for Joplin’s devastation and hope respectively. The tornado touched down for 32 minutes; the walk lasted nearly 5 times that long. But along the way, there were stops to celebrate the progress that has been made in the rebuilding in the past year. Members of the Mormon church raised the steeple on their new building, with those in the crowd raising their hands to symbolically help.

Across the street, ground was broken at the new high school. While the site of the former high school is still piled with debris, parents and students cheered as about 20 ceremonial shovels turned dirt at the site of the new high school. Several in the crowd were dressed in school colors, with shirts that said “Nothing stops us.” And indeed, nothing has. Schools all over town opened on time just three months after the tornado.

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